A playwright, also known as a dramatist, is a person who writes dramatic literature or drama. These works are usually written to be performed in front of a live audience by actors. They may also be closet dramas or literary works written using dramatic forms but not meant for performance.
The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite", but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright or cartwright). Hence the prefix and the suffix combine to indicate someone who has wrought words, themes, and other elements into a dramatic form, someone who crafts plays. The homophone with write is in this case entirely coincidental.
The earliest playwrights in Western literature with surviving works are the Ancient Greeks. These early plays were written for annual Athenian competitions among playwrights held around the 5th century BC. Such notables as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes established forms still relied on by their modern counterparts.
The term playwright appears to have been coined by Ben Jonson in his Epigram 49, To Playwright, as an insult, to suggest a mere tradesman fashioning works for the theatre. He always described himself as a poet, since plays during that time were always written in meter and so regarded as the provenance of poets. This view was held even as late as the early 19th century. The term later lost this negative connotation.
Contemporary playwrights in the United States often do not reach the same level of fame or cultural importance as some did in the past. No longer the only outlet for serious drama or entertaining comedies, theatrical productions must compete for audiences with films, television, and the Internet. In addition, the perilous state of funding for the arts in the United States and a growing reliance by non-profit theatres on ticket sales as a source of income has caused many of them to reduce the number of new works they produce. For example, Playwrights Horizons produced only six plays in the 2002-03 seasons, compared with thirty-one in 1973-74. As revivals and large-scale production musicals become the de rigueur Broadway (and even Off-Broadway) productions, playwrights find it difficult to earn livings in the business, let alone achieve major successes.
The most successful playwrights are often high-status figures in their industry, in stark contrast to the status of the screenwriter in Hollywood. This may be considered a result of the more literary approach that has characterised the theatre since its roots in poetry. According to the Dramatists Guild, the playwright has the final say on a production. In films, by contrast, the director has come to overrule the screenwriter as auteur.
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